Pete Docter—director of Monsters, Inc., Up, and Inside Out—has come a long way since his early days animating Toy Story. “The fun thing about that film was we had no idea what the hell we were doing,” he recalled during a recent conversation as part of our Academy@Home series. “We really believed that we could animate the whole feature with nine animators and one layout person. It turned out we had 27, which is even minuscule compared to today.”
To this day, Pete approaches each project with a sense of curiosity and instinct. He loves that he has no idea where a story will go. His latest film, Soul, is slated to premiere this November. Here are a few things we learned from the director, Academy member, two-time Oscar winner, and Pixar’s chief creative officer:
On the importance of being spontaneous
I went into Monsters, Inc. right from Toy Story, as the rest of the group was starting up A Bug’s Life, having no real clue that I was going to direct [Monsters]. The original plan was that it was going to be this monster who accidentally kidnaps a teen, a little bit more like the character in Paper Moon, where she was much more of a sassy, suspicious, sophisticated kind of kid. At the time, we pitched it to Disney and one of the executives said, “Nobody wants to watch a film about a little girl.” They said, “Could you make a buddy? Put a buddy in it.” And I was like, “Wait a minute, you’re just trying to make this like Toy Story … nope.”
Everybody in the animation business knows there are all these tropes. At the time, if it was animated, it was a musical, and it had to have sidekicks ... so we made a big list, even back on Toy Story, of things that we wanted to avoid to try to push the limits of doing something different.
That was what was in my head for Monsters: I don’t want to do the same movie that we did already. So I sort of crossed my arms at that. However, as we did explore the idea of a buddy, of course, that became Mike [voiced by Billy Crystal], and that became what was at stake for Sulley [voiced by John Goodman] in the film. What started out as an executive note that I sort of pooh-poohed actually ended up really being foundational to the film because it’s that friendship that you root for and care about when this kid comes in and starts to rip it apart.
In my experience, you can’t come into a film saying, “Here’s what I’m going to do,” and be all dogmatic about the morals and everything. You just have to come in with an open heart and see where it takes you.
It’s a little bit like going to therapy. You know deep down what you’re trying to say, but it’s only in opening yourself up and being free to associate and explore that that comes out. I know from experience, if I try to do something that’s too planned out, it’s deadly.
I just finished Soul, and you know what’s funny? At the end of the process, what I crave is to go back to the beginning when we have no idea what’s going on. When I’m actually there, I’m scared and anxious because I feel like we’ve got to find a direction. Maybe I’m a masochist because, at the time, it’s really painful and awful. The actual most fun is probably postproduction. When you’re done with the film and you’ve made all the hard decisions, and the film is hopefully working by then, you get to record the orchestra and you get to go to Skywalker Sound and do all the mix. It’s fantastic. It’s like having dessert after the meal.
On letting the movie reveal itself
The way we work is we’ll write some stuff—usually a treatment and then an outline—and, eventually, a script. From there, we’ll storyboard the whole thing, which is like a little comic book version of the movie that we film, where we do our own dialogue and sound effects. It’s a lot of work, but the benefit is you can kind of approximate the movie. You can sit in a screening room and watch what you imagine the movie will look like without spending hundreds of millions of dollars on it.
And there are key moments where these discoveries show up, like in Monsters, how we were planning on the kid being older. I had this concept that the monsters speak a different language than humans, so when you cut to their point of view of the girl, she was going to sound like gibberish. In the interim, [story artist] Rob Gibbs brought his little kid in and she was on the cusp of language, so she understood one or two words. We recorded that thinking it would substitute in, but it was so appealing that the movie spoke back at us and said, “No, wait, this needs to be a little kid,” so it shifted from what you thought of as this sophisticated, eye-rolly teen. [Gibbs’ daughter Mary ended up voicing the little girl Boo in the film.]
What that did was, it told us that Sulley’s job would be to take care of this kid, as opposed to the old version, where he would almost have to protect himself from the kid. I’ve often said in animation there are no accidents because everything on the screen has to be designed and built and planned, but that was kind of an accident.
Why he wouldn’t consider making a live-action feature
I always feel like I’m made for animation. Here’s why: I feel like I’ll respond, make decisions, go home and think about it all day, and then come back the next day and go, “All right, the one thing I said yesterday about this character—I was wrong. Let’s do blah, blah, blah, blah.” And animation moves slowly enough that people are like, “Okay, that didn’t cost anything, I hadn’t animated the scene yet.”
If it was live-action, the whole set would be gone by then and I don’t know that I could put up with the extreme pressure. I don’t find that as fun as some people do. I know Andrew Stanton, who had done Finding Nemo and WALL-E, went into live-action and came back on fire because he loved that pressure. It forced him into decision-making. I’m not sure I would love that. If you watched the first version of any of my films, you would say, “Get into another line of business.”
On Pixar’s “brain trust”
The idea is that we create a version of the film in storyboard form, we all watch it together, and then we go to a room and it’s Brad Bird, who’s working on The Incredibles, sitting next to Andrew Stanton, who’s working on Finding Nemo. Your peers, who you respect as fellow filmmakers, are contributing and offering up these ideas. Sometimes it gets pretty brutal. I just saw an interview with Daveed Diggs, who’s a voice in Soul, where he talked about how he was in the room for one of these and he said, “I’m not writing anything for Pixar. I don’t have thick enough skin.” Because you do have to take your lumps, but the cool thing about it is that it’s not mandatory.
No matter who it is, the idea is that you take the notes that you think are useful and you can leave the other ones.
There have been many, many things that have happened in those rooms that have affected the films that we’ve done in huge ways. I mean, Brad had a whole separate plot of a villain in The Incredibles that got streamlined as a result of meetings in there. At its best, it works as a breeding ground for new ideas. It’s an audience of filmmakers that you respect. Getting to watch your movie with other people, half the time, I’m sitting in the theater thinking, “We don’t even need a brain trust meeting, I already know what’s wrong.” Seeing it through the eyes of these other people who are sitting next to you suddenly makes you see it in a new way.
On scene-setting like Hayao Miyazaki
If I go back and look at some of my more recent films, I would criticize them for being too quick. However, I will also say, I think Miyazaki knows you can’t just throw those moments in, you have to earn them. You can’t just slow the movie down arbitrarily. There has to be something that the audience is engaged with that allows them to take that breath and slow down. If you really study Miyazaki’s films, they’ll be waiting for the catbus—so there’s this moment of anticipation, we’re with those characters waiting—and at that moment, he’ll do the water drops in the puddle or the leaves rustling in the trees.
He really knows when to give you those things that really place you in the scene. We tried to do that on Up, because I had just seen a bunch of Miyazaki films there and I really wanted to take people on this journey to South America. But as we would start to craft the scenes, they would get cut. So you really have to protect them.
Animators bring this great specificity and ideas that didn’t exist in the boards, so at least at Pixar right now, we’ve become very dependent on the boards and the layout in terms of timing.
We’re basically cutting the film before we shoot it. By the time the shot gets handed out, it’s 47 frames or whatever it is. The cadence, the timing, everything is figured out already. How do we allow for more discovery within animation and yet also deliver the movie on time? If we just open up the floodgates, we’ll never finish, so I think there are all these considerations that will only show up if you make them a priority.
On the inspiration for the story—and music—behind
[Soul] started as a very personal idea after a lifetime of feeling like I was born to be an animator. I started making flipbooks when I was 12, I wanted to work at Disney, I went to CalArts and trained at the school started by Walt. Then, after all these years, Inside Out came out and it was a success on many levels. People seemed to really like it, the critics liked it, we won an Oscar, we played at Cannes, it was amazing. Yet when it was done, I was like, “Now what do I do? Do I just go back?” And I started wondering, “Wait a minute, is this really what I’m meant to be doing with my life? I’m not going to be around forever.”
It was, maybe you could say, a midlife crisis, but it was really a scrutiny over, “What is life really about?” And I thought: perfect subject for a kids cartoon. That’s what we’re looking for when we’re doing animated films. We’re trying to find something that we know is going to have a veneer of fun and things that kids will love, but at the heart of it, you want it to wrestle with something that’s really deep and meaningful to you as a filmmaker—to me.
This story kind of echoes my own life. Here’s a guy who’s been struggling to be a musician, and finally, after years, he makes it into Dorothea Williams’ band. He’s going to be given a shot, he’s going to be a professional, and then he dies. So we’re rooting for this one thing and we start to question it by the end of the film. Then, as we became more specific about it, we introduced, like with all the films we do, all these different elements that became crucial to what the film is.
I don’t know what it’s like to grow up Black in America. Our writer, who became our co-director, Kemp Powers, grew up not only in New York but loving jazz and he’s about the same age as our main character, so he was able to bring a lot of specificity. We had a whole group of folks that were involved from a culture standpoint, talking about sacred places for African Americans and the relationship our character has with his mom, and of course, we relied on a whole group of jazz consultants. I grew up playing in jazz band, I played upright bass. And we actually got to work a little bit with Herbie Hancock, which was amazing.
We’re all humans, so we share that common experience of what it’s like to walk through this mysterious thing we call life.
In the same way that I don’t really know what it’s like to be an 11-year-old girl, we leaned on observation and talking with kids. That’s the great thing about animation: It allows you to inhabit all these different characters and creatures, and start to sympathize with them, which I’m hoping this film will allow.